Can You Get Punitive Damages in a Car Accident Case?

June 24th, 2021 by Rieders Travis in Car Accidents

Car Accident

In short, you can recover punitive damages in a Pennsylvania car crash case. However, you need to prove that the defendant’s actions were a product of deliberate indifference to the consequences or intentional. If the court agrees with you, then you have to take additional steps in order to obtain punitive damages. However, in some cases, it is worth the hassle to go after punitive damages.

What Are Punitive Damages?

Unlike compensatory damages, which the court orders in an attempt to make you whole again, the court orders punitive damages as a way to punish the defendant’s deliberately indifferent or intentional actions or inactions.

The court may permit a jury to award punitive damages, if the evidence supports a wanton, reckless and knowing indifference. This may only occur if you collect compensatory damages and after a number of other factors are examined that would permit punitive damages.

What is the Difference Between Reckless Indifference and Negligence?

Most injuries arise because of a defendant’s negligence. You cannot collect punitive damages for negligence. The actions of defendant must be reckless and wanton, meaning that the defendant was knowingly indifferent to the consequences of his/her actions. For example, if a defendant rear-ends another car because he is distracted by family problems, that is most likely not going to be found to support punitive damages.

However, if a person drives while knowingly under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the court is likely to find that such a person has been recklessly indifferent to the dangers caused to others. Under those circumstances, punitive damages may be awarded by the jury.

How Do You Get Punitive Damages After an Accident?

If you believe you are entitled to collect punitive damages, you have to file a lawsuit against the defendant. Settlements do not normally label a portion of the damages as “punitive”. In fact, many times insurance specifically excludes an award of punitive damages.

Generally, punitive damages are handled separately, after the main portion of the trial. This is called “bifurcation”. First, the fact-finder hears evidence with respect to the accident. If you are awarded compensatory damages, the case may proceed to punitive damages if the evidence is sufficient. You must convince the court that the defendant’s actions or omissions were recklessly indifferent or deliberately indifferent to the consequences or intentional.

If the court agrees that the defendant should have to pay punitive damages, then the case proceeds to a determination of punitive damages. In Pennsylvania, there is no cap on punitive damages generally, outside of the medical malpractice arena.

The part of the trial dealing with punitive damages will be shorter because the court has already heard evidence and the finder of fact has made a determination that you suffered because of actions of the defendant that could justify punitive damages. In the punitive damage trial, you have to prove to the jury or finder of fact that defendant was recklessly or deliberately indifferent or that the actions were intentional. During this phase of the trial, the court may also look at defendant’s financial position.

When Might a Defendant Have to Pay Punitive Damages?

Since it is at the court’s discretion as to whether it deems a defendant’s actions as recklessly indifferent or intentional, it is difficult to guarantee that a fact-finder will award punitive damages. However, most finders-of-fact consider certain behaviors as recklessly indifferent or intentional, such as excessive speeding, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, reckless driving and distracted driving.

It is easier to obtain punitive damages for intentional torts, such as battery, assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and false imprisonment. As the name implies, these are intentional actions meant to hurt someone.

What Other Damages Can I Recover After a Car Accident?

In order to obtain punitive damages after a car accident, you must also recover compensatory damages. What you can recover in compensatory damages depends on the extent of your injuries. If doctors expect you to recover in a few weeks or months, your award is less than if doctors expect your injuries to cause long-term or permanent disabilities.

You may recover two types of compensatory damages: economic damages and non-economic damages. All damages are convertible to a monetary value. Economic damages, sometimes referred to as special damages, are valued based upon such factors as work loss, medical bills, rehabilitation costs, the kinds of costs which can be computed. General damages also have a great monetary value, and they involve such factors as pain and suffering, loss of life’s pleasures, disfigurement, embarrassment, humiliation, and the like.

Economic damages include past and future medical expenses, past and future lost wages, repair or replacement of damaged or destroyed property, and burial, funeral and/or cremation expenses. Medical expenses include costs for therapies, including physical therapy, occupational therapy, cognitive therapy, and other psychological therapies. Depending on how severe your injuries are or how traumatic the accident was that affected you emotionally, therapy sessions could last years after a settlement or a trial award.

If you are able to go to work even though your injuries caused permanent disabilities, but you are not able to earn at the same rate you did prior to the accident, you may recover partial future lost wages, including any expected increases in your original salary.

Non-economic damages include pain and suffering, loss of quality of life, loss of companionship and/or consortium, loss of use of a body part or bodily function, disfigurement, scarring and amputation.

Can I Recover Punitive Damages in a Car Wreck that Caused the Death of a Loved One?

If the defendant’s actions or inactions were recklessly indifferent or intentional, you could recover punitive damages in a wrongful death car accident case.

Pennsylvania’s Statute of Limitations for Car Accident Cases

If you or a loved one suffered injuries in a car accident case, or you lost a loved one in a car wreck, you have two years from the date of the accident or the date of the death to file a lawsuit against the defendant.

Because the process from the initial case evaluation to the filing of a lawsuit could be lengthy, we recommend that you contact us as soon as possible after an accident. Additionally, you are more likely to remember pertinent facts about the accident soon after the accident rather than a year or two later.

Steps leading to litigation include:

  • The initial case evaluation
  • Collecting evidence, including medical records, police reports and witness statements
  • Investigating the accident
  • Negotiations with the insurance companies, should you choose to negotiate a settlement first
  • Preparing the initial complaint, which includes all of the facts of the accident. Drafting the complaint could take several days, depending on the type of car accident.

Ask Our Attorneys about Your Case

To learn more about your rights and the type of damages you can recover after a car accident, contact Rieders, Travis, Humphrey, Waters & Dohrmann at (570) 323-8711 for a free case evaluation.

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